Wednesday, August 8, 2012
The Extraordinary Power of Kindness
A few years ago, I was caught in the maw of one of the darkest periods of my life. The remodeling company I'd founded and run for 8 years had collapsed. A worker had died on a job I was responsible for. My writing was going nowhere. I suffered through days so bleak that I couldn't get out of bed. Think pills by the fistful; psychiatrists by the van-load.
Fred walks with a cane, and his head is slightly misshapen. I knew he'd had some kind of accident about a year before, but I'd been too self-absorbed to learn the details. As we worked, he told me about it.
He'd been riding on our local bike trail, and a group of five young men accosted him. Four of them had bicycles, and they wanted one more. Fred's. They hit him over the back of the head with a 2x4 and kicked him over twenty times. They broke dozens of bones, including his skull. They thought they'd killed him, so they dragged him into some nearby bushes and fled.
Another cyclist called 911, and a determined police officer stayed on the scene for hours before he found Fred. No trauma surgeon in Indianapolis was skilled enough to piece Fred's brain back together, so a team from Chicago was videoconferenced in. He coded six times on the operating table, but he survived and ultimately recovered, sort of. When all the bills were in, Fred had racked up $800,000 in debt over a $10 garage-sale bike. He was bankrupt. To top it all off, Fred is gay. I won't go into the discrimination he's faced throughout his life, but whatever you can imagine, it was probably worse.
I ask you: Did anyone ever have a greater reason to hate the human race?
But here's the amazing thing about Fred. He greets everyone with a cheerful hello and smile--from businessmen rushing around in suits to alcoholics begging on the street corner. After that day of weeding, we started getting together for breakfast now and then--in each restaurant we've walked to, Fred knows everyone--right down to the busboys--by name.
We didn't just talk about what Fred calls his "accident" that day. I told him about my struggles, pitiful though they were by comparison. Fred said he'd hadn't seen me around lately and had been worried. Which was one of the reasons he took some time to talk to me and help me weed that day. Not long afterward, I started working on the first draft of my debut novel, ASHFALL. And I enrolled in taekwondo--partly because I knew the protagonist of ASHFALL would need to know some kind of martial art, but mostly because Fred's story had completely freaked me out.
None of us are undamaged--Fred perhaps least of all. He'll probably never walk without a cane again. But I trace part of the turnaround in my own life to his simple actions--helping a neighbor weed, listening. And that's the extraordinary power of kindness.
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